[FoRK] MotorTrend shootout

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Thu Jul 22 01:07:01 PDT 2004

Three Kings: 2004 Cadillac XLR vs. 2003 Lexus SC 430 vs. 2003 
Mercedes-Benz SL500
Cadillac's brand-new '04 XLR roadster takes on the Lexus SC 430 and the 
Mercedes-Benz SL500 in a battle royal for the hardtop-convertible 
throne. Yes, heads roll.

By Arthur St. Antoine
Photography by John Kiewicz
Motor Trend, July 2003

Kings are great. Kings are powerful. Kings are rare. Kings get all the 
attention. Kings get all the girls. Kings park up front. Kings rule.

Yes, it's good to be the king--unless another king butts in with his 
crown jewels. Then somebody's gonna lose his head.

An audacious American newcomer stakes its claim to a niche ruled by 
high-priced imports.

Cadillac's newest claimant to the throne has entered a rarified market 
niche occupied by not one but two well-established kings. Result? A 
trio of chopped-off crania. Fortunately, all three tops popped right 
back on at the touch of a button. We were there to witness the 

Cadillac's entry, a flagship designed to cast a halo of magnificence 
upon the entire division, is the just-released '04 XLR. This is an 
all-new rear-drive two-door roadster with a power-retractable hardtop, 
a lusty Northstar V-8, more electronic wonders than you'd find in Bill 
Gates' rumpus room, and a composite body as crisp and creased as a 
Number 10 envelope. The XLR also lifts the price ceiling for Cadillacs 
into an unvisited stratosphere: base sticker is $76,250.

Ahead in the line for the throne are two rivals with strikingly similar 
resumes. Like the XLR, the Lexus SC 430 and the Mercedes-Benz SL500 are 
rear-drive two-door roadsters with power hardtops, mighty V-8s, and 
whiz-bang gadgets. The SC and the SL are adored by their subjects, too: 
Last year, Lexus and Mercedes sold roughly 14,000 each. If those 
figures don't impress, consider that the SC 430 starts at $62,600 and 
the SL500 hits the cash register running at a cool $86,710.

Cadillac has come prepared. The XLR is the most far-reaching automobile 
to emerge from GM's luxury division since the Northstar-engined '93 
Seville STS. With a pricetag nearly $14,000 more than the Lexus', the 
XLR doesn't even play the usual American value card. Instead, the XLR 
is a no-compromises swing for the fences--a car built to meet and beat 
the world's best in a straight fight.

Now, off with their heads!

2003 Lexus SC 430
The SC 430 is the refinement leader in this already polished group.
Unveiled in the '02 model year (and Lexus' first convertible), the SC 
430 proved an instant sensation. On the sunny, self-conscious SoCal 
streets that surround MT headquarters, SC 430s are as plentiful as tofu 
stands and Oscar-aspiring barmaids.

Press a single switch, and the folding hardtop of the SC 430 whirs down 
and into the trunk in less than 25 seconds.

The SC 430 is the refinement leader in this exceedingly polished group. 
The suspension creams over the road, the engine purrs, the five-speed 
automatic shifts without a ripple, and the cabin's switches and knobs 
send soothing messages to your fingertips. The steering wheel is a 
gorgeous wood-and-leather model, exquisitely stitched leather wraps 
every nook and cranny, and warm wood adorns the console and the 
dash--including pop-up doors that conceal the standard GPS navigation 
screen and the controls for the Mark Levinson audio system.

We're less enamored of the SC's exterior, one of those nontoxic, 
"organic" shapes that looks neither unattractive nor memorable. And 
while none of these three roadsters is generous with cargo space 
(folded hardtops take up more room than Geraldo Rivera's ego), the SC's 
trunk seems designed for, maybe, a banana. Fortunately, the SC 430 
offers optional run-flat tires that eliminate the need for the 
space-stealing spare, and it has the group's only rear seat--which can 
carry briefcases or even golf bags.

With a 32-valve four-cam 4.3-liter V-8 equipped with variable valve 
timing and delivering 300 horsepower at 5600 rpm, the SC can sprint 
0-60 mph in just 6.75 seconds. Alas, the tuned-for-comfort suspension 
is less eager to play hero: The Lexus posted just 0.78 g on the skidpad 
and came home third in our braking and slalom tests.

At an as-tested price of $63,884, the SC 430 is this group's value 
leader. For many buyers, the words "bargain-priced Lexus" might be all 
the convincing they need.

The leather-and-wood-lined cabin is a paradigm of luxury and civility, 
featuring handsome shapes, astutely arranged controls, and a level of 
craftsmanship second to none.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500
Classic? Oh, yes: Mercedes-Benz has been building SLs for 50 years.
Though redesigned in '02, the SL500 remains a classic. The SL's shape 
is both modern and nostalgic, sharing an unmistakable resemblance to 
the 300SL from five decades earlier

The SL500 needs but 16 seconds to transform from streamlined hardtop 
coupe to exhilarating alfresco roadster.

The cabin has every imaginable luxury, including an optional Keyless Go 
system that allows pushbutton engine starting if a coded key card is 
inside the vehicle (say, in the driver's pocket).

The SOHC 5.0-liter V-8 ripples with 302 horsepower at 5600 rpm--enough 
to propel the SL from zero to 60 mph in 6.67 seconds. Moreover, the SL 
delivers its class-leading 339 lb-ft of torque at just 2700 rpm--even 
at 4045 pounds, the Benz needs only a nudge of the throttle to hustle 
forward. Our test car, equipped with optional 18-inch AMG wheels and 
high-performance tires, also posted the most grip in the group--0.85 
g--and ran the slalom 2.5 mph faster than the second-place XLR.

The SL is brimming with safety systems. A rollbar automatically deploys 
if the top is down and the vehicle exceeds a programmed tilt limit. 
Electro-hydraulic brakes (the world's first) are said to deliver better 
stops than conventional systems. Active body control helps reduce ride 
motions and allows the driver to select a firmer suspension setting, if 

You'll pay for such royal treatment, though. Base sticker is a 
group-high $86,710--and it climbs quickly from there. Our test car, 
equipped with such options as the Comfort, Wood, and Sport packages, 
rolled out the door for $100,360. Sure, you could buy a small house for 
that. But you wouldn't live nearly as well.

The cockpit includes four hooded primary instruments that recall the 
classic designs of the '50s. Mercedes' COMAND system integrates audio, 
navigation, and optional cell-phone into one central display.

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2004 Cadillac XLR
The 320-horse XLR does 0-60 mph in an impressive 6.25 seconds.
 From now on, people are likely to talk about Cadillac as "pre-XLR" or 
"post-XLR." While Cadillacs in the past decade have showcased styling 
or performance or technology, the XLR is the first model that fully and 
successfully integrates the automaker's ambitious forays in all three 
directions. The result is a unique and flavorful "new Cadillac," a car 
in many ways unlike anything else on the road.

The XLR's folding top is the slowpoke in this group, but it still needs 
fewer than 30 seconds to work its hardtop-to-roadster magic.

The numbers speak volumes. Compared with the SC and the SL, the XLR has 
the longest wheelbase by almost three inches--yet, thanks to snug 
overhangs front and rear, it's the shortest in length. The XLR is the 
widest and lowest, and it's a good 200 pounds lighter than the Lexus 
and 400 pounds lighter than the Benz. Engine output, 320 horsepower at 
6400 rpm, is the best of the trio. At 24 mpg, the XLR delivers the best 
EPA highway fuel-economy rating, too.

That David Hill, vehicle line executive for GM's Performance Cars, 
presided over development of the XLR is telling: Hill is also chief 
engineer for the Corvette. In fact, the XLR is based on the same 
next-generation architecture as the forthcoming C6 Vette. Composed of 
steel hydroformed frame rails, an aluminum cockpit structure, and 
composite floors with balsa-wood cores, this advanced structure is 
lightweight and exceptionally stiff.

The XLR's DOHC 32-valve 4.6-liter V-8 is the first Northstar to be used 
in a longitudinal rear-drive layout. To make it fit, the water pump had 
to be moved to the front of the engine--a seemingly innocuous change 
that necessitated reworking all the V-8's water jackets. "We completely 
redesigned the block and heads," says John Zinser, GM Powertrain 
Northstar chief engineer. The XLR V-8 also incorporates such Northstar 
firsts as electronic throttle control and variable valve timing.

The XLR's transmission, a five-speed automatic, is mounted at the rear 
for improved weight distribution. It includes a semi-manual 
sequential-shift feature that allows the driver to change gears simply 
by nudging the lever fore or aft.

The XLR interior is graced with superb leather buckets, handsome 
eucalyptus-wood insets, and patterned-aluminum accents. Almost every 
imaginable convenience is standard, including GPS navigation, heated 
and cooled seats, a voice-activated telephone, a spectacular Bose 
stereo with additional headrest speakers, and gauges designed in 
concert with famed Italian jeweler Bulgari. The only option is an XM 
satellite radio.

The XLR includes a head-up display that projects basic instrument 
information onto the windshield and works more effectively than any 
we've seen before. Shift into semi-manual transmission mode, for 
instance, and your chosen gear conveniently materializes alongside the 
digital speedo that normally appears by itself.

Like the SL500, the XLR features an adaptive cruise-control system that 
uses a forward-mounted radar unit to maintain a selected distance 
between you and the car ahead. And while a keyless ignition system is 
optional on the SL, on the XLR it's standard. In fact, the XLR is truly 
keyless--there are no key holes in the doors or the ignition. Simply 
pocket the key fob, and you can open the doors or start the engine at 
the push of a button. (Cadillac does include a key in case of a 
complete electronic failure--there's a small keyhole hidden in the 

As chiseled as a stealth fighter, the XLR is as high-tech as one, 
too--featuring a head-up digital-instruments display, 
magnetic-electronic active suspension, keyless operation, and a central 

At the test track, the XLR proved true to its performance-car pedigree. 
Fastest to 60 mph (6.25 seconds), best 0-100-0 time, and second best on 
the skidpad (0.83 g) and in the slalom--despite relatively skinny 
all-season run-flat tires. Pushed hard on the road, the XLR makes 
thrilling noises as the Northstar nears its 6700-rpm redline, and the 
suspension returns a remarkable combination of handling quickness and 
fluid ride control. Credit the XLR's magnetic ride-control system, 
which automatically adjusts shock damping to handle changing road 
conditions and driver inputs. Asked if Cadillac has any plans to 
introduce a rumored sport package, XLR chief engineer David Leone 
replied simply, "We think the XLR is where it ought to be right now."

We remain impressed by the uncompromising quality and finesse that's 
evident throughout the Lexus SC 430. Many spas aren't this relaxing. 
Yet the car leaves us hungering for more flavor and driving excitement. 
This isn't an automobile that'll inspire you to sneak to the garage at 
night just to smile at its lines. Nor will its ultra-competent moves 
set your synapses afire. The SC, instead, is the ultimate in splendid 
isolation--and more than 14,000 buyers annually couldn't be happier.

It's difficult to conceal our admiration for the Mercedes-Benz SL500. 
Few automobiles do so many things so well--or look so good doing them. 
 From its timeless lines to its Pullman-car cabin to its effortless, 
exhilarating performance, the SL stirs the senses even as it soothes 
the soul--a remarkable achievement that justifies its steep admission 
price. Status is obviously a huge purchase consideration, too: for many 
shoppers in this imperial market niche, only the three-pointed star 
will do.

Yet here comes the Cadillac XLR, a car brimming with personality, 
performance, and astutely integrated, leading-edge technology. Does it 
take the crown from the SL500? Final answer: not quite. The SL has 
ingot-like fit and finish, and it radiates a poise and sophistication 
that, frankly, we'd expect of a company that's been building SLs for 
half a century. Yet that only emphasizes Cadillac's achievement. The 
XLR is a world-class roadster that, right out of the box, is nipping at 
the heels of one of the most legendary two-seaters in the business. 
Factor in the XLR's $10,000-plus price advantage, and it's a safe bet 
that Cadillac should have no trouble selling the 5000 or so XLRs it's 
aiming to build this year.

For now, the Mercedes-Benz SL500 remains on top. But the arrival of the 
Cadillac XLR proves an age-old adage: It may be great to be king, but 
you're never safe on the throne. Just ask Elvis.

Cadillac XLR
Lexus SC 430
Mercedes-Benz SL500

What's Hot

·Full-bodied Northstar engine
·Leading-edge technologies
·Daring stealth-fighter shape
·Velvety V-8
·Designer interior
·Genteel manners
·Tuxedo-classic attire
·Adrenalized performance
·Vault-like solidity and security

What's Not

·Undernourished tires
·Cheesy plastic covers in airdam
·Untested Cadillac price realm
·Jell-O-mold body
·Low-grip suspension
·Occasional structural shimmies
·Fuel economy
·Mt. Everest sticker
·Letting someone else drive

Don't Miss

Multitalented chassis with StabiliTrak and magnetic ride control.
A 240-watt Mark Levinson audio system better than your living room's.
In the quest for safety, the SL even has an airbag for the driver's 

Bottom Line

Cadillac aims for roadster brilliance--and hits the bull's eye.
The standard in open-air quality and refinement.
If it made you a martini after your drive, it'd be about perfect.

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